Kevin Faulk seethed on the LSU sideline. "There's nothing we can do about the last play," Mike Haywood told him. This was 1998, Faulk's senior season. The Tigers were in South Bend, Ind., and Notre Dame's Lamont Bryant had just returned a fumble -- Faulk's fumble -- for a touchdown. "All right," Haywood remembers Faulk saying, "I got something for ‘em."
Then Faulk set his jaw, returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown, and moved on. LSU lost the game 39-36, but Faulk finished with 108 rushing yards. By that point, Haywood, Faulk's running backs coach at LSU, was used to his star pupil going off.
"That's how he was," said Haywood, who's now the head coach at Miami of Ohio. "That's how he reacted." Always.
These days, Faulk is still an intuitive player. It's how, at 5-foot-8 and 202 pounds, he's been able to amass 12,140 all-purpose yards in the NFL. It's why, Haywood told me, Charlie Weis likes to say that after Tom Brady, Kevin Faulk is the smartest player he's ever coached. "He became an expert at his job," said Haywood, who was Weis' offensive coordinator at Notre Dame before taking the Miami job. "He was good at everything."
Faulk, 34, is entering his 12th year in the league. He's the only player left on the Patriots from the pre-Bill Belichick era. That kind of longevity is rare. "According to the NFL Players Association, a running back's career lasts 2.6 years on average," Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden noted in a special report last week, "the shortest of any position." To be fair, Faulk doesn't take as much punishment as most feature backs (although check out this this vicious hit) because he isn't one.
By NFL standards, he's not a physical marvel. "I bet there have been hundreds, maybe thousands of players who have played, been cut, or quit [over the last 12 years] who have more talent than he does," former LSU coach Gerry DiNardo recently told Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe.
To truly appreciate Faulk, you have to accept that he's a contradiction. He's a spare part, but an invaluable one.
Take, for example, Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Panthers. He didn't score the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, but he ran in a two-point conversion to extend the Patriots lead. Three seasons later, the Patriots called on Faulk late in a playoff game against the Chargers. Again he successfully converted a two-point try, this time tying the score.
"Brady, out of the shotgun, made a convincing fake as running back Kevin Faulk took a direct snap from center Dan Koppen and slipped into the end zone --," SI's Michael Silver wrote afterward, "the same play the Patriots converted successfully in the fourth quarter of their Super Bowl XXXVIII victory over the Carolina Panthers three seasons ago." The Brady fake, direct snap to Faulk, a modern riff on the Statue of Liberty, has become a Patriots staple. (Once, during the 2007 playoffs, Brady used a fake, fake direct snap to set up a touchdown pass to Wes Welker.) Faulk, a record-setting high school quarterback in his native Louisiana, was made for gadget plays. Against the Dolphins in December 2001, I watched him complete a 23-yard pass-to Brady. (I was there, high up in the aluminum bleachers at the old Foxboro Stadium.)
Faulk's disjointed running style -- as seen in the above montage -- is unique. He doesn't have Chris Johnson's speed or Adrian Peterson's power, but he compensates by making the most out of what little space he has to work with. "I haven't seen anybody run like Kevin does," Haywood told me. "He's unbelievable at knowing what moves he's going to make." Faulk's ability to shake would-be tacklers with quick cuts is uncanny. It's probably why he's so good at extending drives.
"Anecdotally, it seems that every time he touches the ball he picks up a first down," Kerry J. Byrne at Cold, Hard Football Facts said in an e-mail this week. "It's actually kind of amazing to watch." Byrne hasn't done any research on the subject, but there's one stat I found that at least speaks for Faulk's consistency: Since 2000, his 56 receiving first downs on third down plays leads all running backs.
For more on Faulk, I went to Football Outsiders founder Aaron Schatz, who crunched some numbers for me. As it turns out, my favorite running back isn't an elite chain-mover anymore:
Amazingly, over the last couple years at least, this simply isn't true. For example, last year the Pats threw 16 times to Faulk on third or fourth down. Only five of those passes converted for a new set of downs. In 2008, the Pats also threw 16 times to Faulk on third or fourth down. Only six of those passes converted for a new set of downs (including one touchdown). For the two seasons combined, Faulk converted 34 percent of third/fourth down passes. The average for running backs as a whole is 30.5 percent, so he's not that much above average.
Sadly, my sentimental attachment to Faulk isn't quantifiable. There's just something about the way he's seemingly been able to stay relevant as a complementary player that still gets me. He may be a contradiction, but I love him for it.